A friend recently told me about his mother-in-law. Aged 73, Stephanie (not her real name) had to stop driving for a few weeks after she had a mini-stroke. She lives a few miles outside Canterbury. Unable to use her car, she thought she could use the bus — but there is no regular service near her. So the question is: do we abandon Stephanie and people like her?
Do we leave her alone to decide whether and how she makes it to hospital appointments? Do we accept that her social life and quality of life will decline? And, looking at the bigger picture, do we stand by as our villages fall apart?
Under the current Canterbury District policies, the answer is mainly ‘Yes’ to the questions above. The bus service is largely operated by Stagecoach, a commercial company, not a charity, and it needs to make a profit. The real issue now is whether we, through Canterbury City Council and Kent County Council, should use our creativity, collective will and shared funds to reach our fellow residents in Chartham, Thanington and other places that are currently poorly served. What can we do at an affordable cost?
Stephanie is one of thousands whose lives are curtailed by a lack of transport. Two Women’s Institute branches in Canterbury completed a survey in June which showed that they spend an average of £4.05 a month per head on travelling by taxi because there is no bus. Just over half (18) of the 34 women who filled in the questionnaire were unaffected — mainly because they lived near the city centre or have a car. But the remaining 16 seem to lose out quite significantly. Six of them (that is 18 per cent) cannot afford a taxi and so miss out on “social activities”, “all sorts of things”, “trips to shops with friends” and other activities that city-dwellers and drivers take for granted.
One woman who spends £15 a month on taxis says the lack of evening buses means that “going to the cinema or theatre is hard”. Another, whose annual taxi spend is £60, says she “cannot visit friends or children”. Another waits for lifts from her children. And another counts herself fortunate to be able to walk. In a civilised society, these are quite substantial restrictions on a part of living that we value very highly — seeing family and friends and keeping in touch with culture.
Julie Board, President of the St Stephen’s branch of the Women’s Institute, says that most members of her group are concerned about the situation, even if they are fine themselves. “They don’t think it’s fair,” she says. “And they are worried about the effects on children who are socially isolated if they can’t get into Canterbury. The children don’t have access to friends or activities. It is important they can join in shared activities with their friends at school. But many of these activities are based in Canterbury, often making it impossible for them to get home afterwards when there is no public transport available in the evenings.”
The inadequacy of the bus service is now rising up the agenda across the country. So concerned is the Women’s Institute nationally about the resulting mental health and isolation issues that it has prioritised rural buses as one of two campaigns it is championing this year. And the Department of Transport is also recognising that the service has many gaps.
The Canterbury Society is holding a meeting on bus services on 5 September to discuss these issues. Congestion and climate change issues also mean that we should be trying to fund more public transport. We have left this vital subject on the ‘too difficult’ pile for too long.
Canterbury Society meeting: Thursday, 5 September at the Friends Meeting House, The Friars, Canterbury at 7 for 7.30. Everyone is welcome. Tea, coffee and biscuits are served (free) from 7pm.